This article is the final installment of “U.S. Politics: A Brief Guide for Organizers,” a three part series from historian and organizer Van Gosse for Organizing Upgrade.
Is there an opportunity for radical realignment in or around the Democratic Party, or will the establishment forces who simply want to return to the status quo pre-Trump continue to rule the roost?
To think about what may come next, we need some basic premises.
The biggest fact about U.S. politics in the last half-century is that bipartisan passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 meant that the Democratic Party had cast off its historic base, the most solid bloc in American history — the white people of the South. Over time, those voters moved into the Republican Party. And the overwhelming majority of African Americans as well as big percentages of other communities of color became a core base of the Democratic Party. Everything else in our history since then revolves around that shift, which took decades, but is probably irreversible.
For some time, the Republicans have been fundamentally a minority; the last time they won a majority of the popular vote was in 2004, and that was a freak occurrence: a wartime president with considerable campaigning skills, able to take forty percent of Latino voters; a feckless centrist Democrat who was “Swift Boated” before he even began. And prior to 2004, the GOP had not won a majority or even a plurality of the popular vote since 1988. They know this very well, and everything they do is built from that reality.
But anyone who reads premise #2 will tell you it’s either ridiculous or irrelevant! Since 2009, the Republicans have relentlessly won at every level of local, state, and nation. At their peak in 2017 they controlled the presidency, both houses of Congress, 34 of 50 governorships, and two-thirds of state legislative chambers. Clearly there is a profound disjuncture between actual voters and electoral power [see my “Why the United States Is Not a True Democracy,” Parts 1 and 2]. But it is not just the Electoral College, gerrymandering, and Republican voters’ concentration in white rural states magnifying their impact in the Senate and the Electoral College. There is another, less-comfortable fact: their voters come out in local, state, and congressional midterm elections at a much higher rate than Democratic voters. Their base is older white people, who feel they are defending a “way of life.” That reality explains the catastrophic losses of the Obama years — the House in 2010, the Senate in 2014, and in the states — as much as their apparatus of voter suppression.
The GOP’s right-wing apparatus is not going away! It’s concentrated in the states, where nearly all decisions about voting are made, and specifically the states they control. It is multi-level, extremely sophisticated, and ever-evolving in response to court decisions or new trends. This is not just voter-identification laws that target older, poorer voters, especially those of color, and students. Limiting early voting, closing polling sites, gerrymandering, and comprehensive “purges” of voter rolls constitute a rolling campaign to squeeze the margins on election day sufficiently to hang on to power. Progressive activists need to wade deep into these weeds, find their allies, and constantly challenge this attack on democracy, calling it out, or we won’t have any left.
The Obama years and the 2016 debacle
So where do we start? The Obama presidency did nothing to reverse the steady decline of democratic and progressive currents in U.S. politics. Elected on a wave of hope and the fall-out from a deep financial crisis and an unpopular war, Obama did good things on the margins (and success in negotiating the Iran Nuclear Agreement which Trump abandoned is certainly looking even better in retrospect than it did at the time.) But Obama’s administration utterly failed to confront the roots of the economic crisis in the “financialization” of global capitalism, and also to effectively combat the white nationalist backlash that permeated the Republican Party. Bill Clinton had solidified a neoliberal consensus in the 1990s with his notorious 1996 State of the Union (“the era of big government is over”), yet Obama put Clintonites at the center of his administration and tried to reason with rather than battle the rising reactionary tide. In the face of a ruthless, leave-no-racist-demagogy-unused crusade by the GOP, this political and ideological stance led to the disaster of 2016, when another Clinton deeply tied to Wall Street ran a cautious, inept campaign while Trumpism swept through the Republican Party and then the electorate, taking on the dimensions of a mass social movement.
Fortunately, something else was rising up too. From 2015 on, first Sanders, then Warren and the Squad and the progressive Democrats around them have mounted a significant electoral challenge not only to the racist right but to the Clinton-Obama consensus around a “social neoliberalism” in which the best we can hope for is protection of New Deal and Great Society programs. Suddenly, even old-school Democrats are debating structural reform in ways unimaginable ten years ago, when neither “Medicare For All” nor a “Green New Deal” were even blips on the nation’s radar screen. A broad cross-section of working- and middle-class voters turned out in November 2018 in the largest mid-term vote in at least four decades (53% versus 42% in 2014, a historic low), turning the House around and bringing in a leftist caucus in Congress led by women of color.
Is a new realignment on the agenda?
Are we on the verge of another great realignment like that of the 1850s or the 1930s? If it were to resemble the former, that would mean a new party from the ashes of the old; if it were the latter, we would see an existing party radically remade. Both scenarios are up for discussion, the historic opportunity seems real if not yet fully ripe. The Democratic Party is a loose, fluid entity containing all kinds of forces. It has a corporate wing, the Jamie Dimons and Mike Bloombergs, and a lot of stand-patism rooted in office-holders deeply afraid of losing their seats. Some parts of it still practice the machine politics of patronage, as in New Jersey. The base of the party has moved sharply left, ready to fight. If all of the free-floating energy for structural change and radical reform can be united, it could bring the center along with it, and we will have a chance to start a new cycle of progressive change rooted in working-class values and needs.
Lessons from past political shifts are very relevant here:
1. Realignment will not happen over one or two elections.
The Republican Party that suddenly emerged across the North in 1854-1856 had ample precedents. Antislavery voters had organized and run tickets at every level since 1840, and repeatedly failed to overcome the dominance of the big national parties. It is extremely difficult to break up an existing party. For many years, antislavery Whigs — men like William Seward, former President John Quincy Adams, and Joshua Giddings — maintained a commitment to their national organization even when it ran slaveholders for the presidency in 1844, 1848, and 1852. Progressive and leftists have occupied the same position inside the Democratic Party for decades. It took an extraordinary series of defeats and an explosion of anti-slavery sentiment to dissolve the Whigs and create the space for something new. We would need equivalent shocks to reorient the Democratic Party to the left or create an essentially new party under whatever name. So gird your loins, and tighten your belts for defeats and disappointments — above all, keep in mind that short-cut solutions and one-shot, all-or-nothing personalist campaigns have never worked out well.
2. A short-term wild card remains a possibility.
In periods of flux, new parties crop up, usually in the “non-ideological” center or center-right, as places for voters to park their anxieties. In the antebellum era, parties of this type were usually nativist, since the large majority were native-born Anglo-Protestants open to this appeal. In 1854-1856, the Know-Nothing “American” Party seemed poised for power. Their 1856 candidate, ex-President Millard Fillmore, got twenty-one percent of the vote, but then they fell apart. The closest parallel in our time is Ross Perot, who got nineteen percent in 1992, and eight percent in 1996. But who has heard of him now? Whether some grouping of disgruntled Establishment types, claiming the mantle of “bipartisan moderation,” could gain any traction now is anyone’s guess. Figures like Bloomberg and Chafee have the potential to roil the waters, or could be forgotten men a year from now.
3. Most significant is what we are missing now, versus in the 1850s or the 1930s.
The Republicans of the 1850s were building on a solid bases across several parties, with deep local roots. Today’s left, with some exceptions, has not moved into the Democratic Party apparatus. And that party organization is itself shockingly thin and uneven, compared to the past. In many places, a new party under whatever name would have to organized from very little, rather than incorporating established structures adept at recruiting volunteers, identifying voters, and election day turn-out. (In the mid-twentieth century, a powerful labor movement did that work for the Democrats, but outside of some enclaves, that apparatus has withered).
Just as serious, unlike in the 1840s and 50s, we have no significant “third party” forerunners, or a left organization capable of making strategic interventions. Here a comparison with the 1930s is valuable. The upsurge then was class-based, massive strikes across the country that brought into being the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), a powerful national center. And a key force in that upsurge was the Communist Party, capable of deploying hundreds of disciplined, dedicated organizers. Most importantly the CP was not external to workers’ lives, it built on networks of leadership in the factories and communities. We don’t have any of that, although we do have local and state networks of community-based organizers key to whatever left we will build now.
A third disability is our collective lack of familiarity with basic parliamentary procedures — the debilitating legacy of years in organizations that operate by consensus, if not as “structureless tyrannies.” Anyone serious about electoral, legislative, and party politics needs to learn Roberts’ Rules. Antislavery radicals before the Civil War included masters of parliamentary procedure, like John Quincy Adams, who used his skill to flummox the slaveholders controlling Congress from 1836 to his death in 1848 — and largely brought out into the open the submerged antislavery bloc of Northern voters. Similarly, as the Republican floor leader in the House from 1861 to 1868, Thaddeus Stevens built what we now call Radical Republicanism. Minus those abilities, we will be flailing around forever.
Our side is learning fast
The good news is that key actors in the social justice movement are learning fast. Rich experience is being acquired by the groups and individuals (many of whom never before engaged in partisan electoral politics) who have thrown themselves into the Sanders or Warren campaigns, and formations like Our Revolution, Working Families Party, and Justice Democrats. New sophistication in meshing together the “inside” game and the outside game, electoral politics and mass action, breaking out of silos, is apparent when we see MoveOn and Win Without War mobilizing for street demonstrations against aggression against Iran, the Dream Defenders endorsing Bernie, and Black Womxn For endorsing Warren. The Squad is already a force in Congress, and learning how to be ever more effective with each passing day.
These and other crucial ingredients for a realignment are coming into view. If the left continues to develop at its current pace for the year ahead; if a breakthrough in building alignment between the most important players in the diverse progressive world can be achieved; and if Trump can be beaten in November so that there is sufficient democratic space and high enough morale for our side to reach new constituencies and win some victories, we might be having a whole different conversation in January 2021. Or Trump wins again, and we have to hunker down and not let our energies diffuse into despair, and keep building. Either way, it’s a whole other conversation!
Democratic candidates are now competing on the left for the first time since the 1968-1974 period, when liberalism got radicalized by the Vietnam War and more. This is exciting but adds to the uncertainty and flux. So let’s put some names on these terms.
- For “opportunism,” think Tulsi Gabbard, meaning someone who mouths radical positions but has no real politics and, due to her connections to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist right-wing regime, is prone to conciliate or even ally with Trump.
- For “authenticity,” think Bernie. He has walked the talk over a very long time, never flinching, and that is a well of irreplaceable political capital, a way to reach voters who might not otherwise vote progressive. But at a time when there is considerable evidence that it will take an alliance of progressive and “moderate” voters (suburban women) on top of sectors whose reference point remains Obama and the vicious attacks on him (older Black voters) to beat Trump, can Bernie widen his appeal?
- For “cynicism,” think of all the people you know who say they won’t vote at all unless Bernie is the candidate, or insist despite all evidence that electoral politics are a sham because “they’re all the same.” This is the biggest danger, because we live in a culture where cynicism is too often equated with radicalism even though it undermines rather than fosters collective action for the common good, which lies at the very heart of emancipatory working-class politics.
This last point suggests a final lesson from the 1930s, and not just in the U.S. The threat of fascism should concentrate the mind, and remind us of the urgency of building a “popular front,” as it was called then, of all democratic forces, even those to the right of center, to oppose those who seek to tear down and destroy democracy. That is what the anti-Trump effort adds up to: a new front of all those prepared to defend democracy even across wide political disagreements, and how we on the left operate within it, maintaining our principles but showing great tactical flexibility, will determine what happens during the next decade.